03/18/2014 03:02 pm ET Updated May 18, 2014

Russia's Crimean Annexation -- It's Time to Confront the Facts

After the Russian decision to annex Ukraine the time has come to confront the facts and see things as they are. So far most comments on Ukraine and Crimea have excelled in fanciful ideas, suggestions, and proposals for giving Russia and President Putin more or less what they want. The agenda has been suffused by fig leaves to hide US/EU unwillingness to confront the issue and draw geopolitical consequences; unwelcome as they are and calling for agonizing reappraisals.

What is at stake is the existing world order, the rule of the law, respect for international agreements, and rejection of 'you get away with taking yourself.' These elements are crucial ones for the world order.

It is correct that Russia and President Putin may point to legitimate concerns over the conditions of the Russian minority inside some of the former Soviet republics, but these concerns should be addressed by applying the panoply of agreements, not the least the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), built before and after the Cold War. It is correct that the enlargement of NATO into Central- and Easter Europe amounted to classifying Russia as the potential enemy, which was unwise because it pushed Russia toward living up to this expectation.

It is correct that neither the US nor the EU have devoted efforts and energy to build a solid and forward looking relationship with Russia; maybe Russia was not interested. Both sides are now paying the price for this omission -- inadequate statecraft -- committed over the last 20 years. It is correct to question the legitimacy of the current government in Ukraine and maybe even more in the case of Crimea. It is correct that the upheavals in Ukraine have opened the door for extremist political forces to make their presence felt, however much we feel that this should not have happened.

But none of this warrant the steps Russia have taken violating treaties and agreements entered into by Russia and contradictory to policy statements by President Putin.

- In 1991 when the Soviet Union broke up, Russia and President Yeltsin were adamant that the borders among the former republics should be the borders between Russia and the new born independent nations.

- In 1994 Russia together with other powers including the US guaranteed Ukraine's territorial integrity and political independence as a quid pro quo for giving up its nuclear arsenal.

- In 1999 the members of OSCE signed a Charter for European Security. Paragraph eight reads like this:

.........Each participating State has an equal right to security. We reaffirm the inherent right of each and every participating State to be free to choose or change its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance, as they evolve. Each State also has the right to neutrality. Each participating State will respect the rights of all others in these regards. They will not strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other States. Within the OSCE no State, group of States or organization can have any pre-eminent responsibility for maintaining peace and stability in the OSCE area or can consider any part of the OSCE area as its sphere of influence.....

- September 2013 President Putin wrote in New York Times, "The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not." Irrespective of views on the legitimacy of the politicians in power in Ukraine, a referendum in Crimea about its future relations is a violation of Ukraine's constitution -- there can be no arguing about that.

- Two weeks ago President Putin stated at a press conference that Russia is not considering annexing Crimea but "it's up to people living in a certain territory, if they can exercise their free will, and determine their future ... only the people who live in certain territory have the right to decide their own future." President Putin may take the view that the referendum in Crimea reflects this, but not very many outside Russia feel the same. Observers and monitors are absent and the questions do not include status quo robbing the referendum of any kind of genuine choice.

What this shows is that no solution can be reached evoking treaties or commitments. It is political in the genuine sense of that word: Power! None the less the US/EU could try the diplomatic track to find out whether a solution is possible. With the consent of Ukraine a solution around the following lines might be tried.

More independence or home rule for Crimea if the population so wishes. A referendum organized and controlled by OSCE and agreed by Ukraine to respect its constitution could be undertaken to find out if that is the case. The rights of the Russian speaking people could be monitored in the future by observers from the OSCE. A guarantee that the Russian bases as they now are will be respected. The US/EU could let it be understood that Ukrainian membership of NATO is not on the agenda, but the partnership agreement with the EU does not fall in this category and a Russian say over whether such an agreement can be signed and implemented should be resisted. As Russia has voiced concerns over the Russian speaking populations in the Eastern part of Ukraine an offer of OSCE monitors there could form part of a solution.

This would meet legitimate legal and political Russian preoccupations and concerns. And it would be in line with statements by Putin saying that the Russian objective is not to annex Crimea, that Russia respects the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and that no Russian soldiers are in Crimea outside the bases. If that is not enough, Russian ambitions go further than statements and consequently warrant a different US/EU response. If Russia and President Putin has decided to play hardball, however elegant US/EU softball will not be effective.

Ukraine should then be offered membership of NATO, referring to paragraph eight of the 1999 Charter for European Security. If need arises some token of immediate military commitment to Ukraine's defense might be contemplated. Maybe the US/EU will have to play hardball for a while to get a political negotiated solution. Sometimes the will to risk conflict even militarily is the only way to avoid such an outcome.

Most politicians, commentators, and observers would squirm at this step pointing to the risk of armed conflict even war with Russia, which, obviously, no one want.

But if Russia and President Putin are ready to go to war to claw back some or all of the territories lost when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 no concessions on Crimea will prevent that from happening. If Russia and President Putin is not ready to risk war, concessions on Crimea now are unnecessary, superfluous, and even dangerous.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller

Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.
Adjunct Professor Singapore Management University & Copenhagen Business School.
Former State-Secretary, Royal Danish Foreign Ministry.